It would appear that in the early hours of Sunday morning the current Welsh national football team manager, Gary Speed, chose to hang himself in his Cheshire home. Suicide is certainly not an uncommon occurrence amongst high-profile public figures, or celebrities. In fact in some areas of our popular culture a perverse glamour has attached itself to such displays of self-negation, particularly in the ‘live fast, die young’ arena of rock music and the potentially dangerous self-analytical processes of a certain type of literary creation. What is quite striking about Speed’s apparent suicide is the fact that it comes from a sportsman, and in particular a football player/manager.
Now it is not that sportspeople are incapable of committing suicide, but rather that the number of active sports stars who do commit suicide is considerably lower than any of the other pop cultural public careers. Amongst the sports with the highest number of suicides is the performance sport of Wrestling, which has far more of an affinity with the more turbulent acting profession than with fellow combat sports such as boxing and the various martial arts. Football, as in soccer, has had comparatively few incidences of suicide among the major team sports. In recent years the only notable examples would be the former Nigerian international Uche Okafor and the German international goalkeeper Robert Enke. The former death was found to have taken place in suspicious circumstances and has since been reclassified as a murder, whilst the latter was thought to be connected with Enke’s long history of depression. When thinking of British football players who have taken their own life, you would have to go back as far as 1998 to the tragic death of Justin Fashanu, who had been harassed for many years for having come out in 1990 as an openly gay footballer (something that still seems to be firmly taboo).
There have certainly been as volatile and seemingly self-destructive individuals in the world of football, as you would find in many other areas of popular culture. Yet the likes of George Best and Jimmy Baxter chose the slow-poison of alcoholism, whilst Paul Gascoigne and Diego Maradona have stubbornly clung onto life despite their very best efforts and their seemingly blackest moments. Many footballers, as with other sportspeople, do seem to experience an appreciable difficulty adjusting to life away from football, once their playing careers have drawn to a close. All the players mentioned in this paragraph, thus far, experienced some form of depression when they were no longer able to do what had come so naturally to them for so many years. The three British players all turned to the self-anesthitising powers of the demon drink, whilst Maradona went through numerous drug and food problems, before finding some kind of sanity as a coach and a television figure back in Argentina. This highlights one of the key issues in sport, namely what does a sportsperson do once their career is over, usually somewhere around their 35th birthday, if not sooner.
Part of the reason why so many sports reward their professionals well nowadays is due to this problem of career brevity. Yet money does not solve the problem of purpose. Where possible, sportspeople tend to reintegrate themselves back into the game in some kind of coaching, or promotional capacity, particularly with team sports, such as football. Outside of this, due to the growth in professional sport incomes, many former sportspeople move into the business sphere with increasing ease, if not success, upon retirement. The competitive instincts that have been sharpened for many years on the pitch, court or field, tend to be prized by industry leaders, with some suggestions also being made as to their generally positive psychological benefits. Problems seem to arise amongst sportspeople when this competitive instinct is aligned with a compulsive, or addictive, personality that leads to the development of certain dependencies in a bid to sustain dwindling powers and stave off the rapidly approaching obsolescence of an post-sport life.
Returning to the specific issue of British footballers, it is abundantly clear that there has been for a long time an aversion to any real analysis of the psychology of players. Until very recently there was the assumption that players were being paid to do something that they enjoyed, so what could possibly be wrong with them. The dominant stereotype of the British game, with a particular focus on English football, is that its players have traditionally adopted a ‘no-nonsense’ approach. This ‘no-nonsense’ approach has then been extended to the coaching side of the game, as well as to the commentators and supporters attitudes toward the game. In this environment that, until the arrival of the likes of Arsene Wenger, made English football seem like the last bastion of that famous ‘British’ policy of the ‘stiff upper lip’, it is unlikely that issues of mental health are going to be discussed in a measured, open and constructive manner. Far from it in fact, with the tendency being for footballers to either engage in the tried and tested addictive remedies of years gone by, or simply suppress whatever issues may be plaguing their minds.
As a result of this complex nexus of institutionally sustained ignorance, a general lack of understanding, or willingness to understand and a traditional mistrust of the therapeutic approaches for treating psychological problems, the British public’s perception of a footballer’s situation tends to be more than a little skewered. This disparity between what the public think of a player and what the player is actually experiencing is further complicated by the overly self-aware modern media culture we all now operate within. When narrative arcs can be sculpted from players psychologies to demonstrate a human failing that has been superficially acknowledged and brushed aside with the ease of a sugar-pill treatment, all for the benefit of extra publicity and the insatiable lust for column inches, then it only helps to trivialise otherwise intensely serious medical conditions.
The death of Gary Speed seems to have left a number of people within football, and a number of people who follow football, feeling somewhat numb and confused. Unlike many modern footballers Speed seemed to be a grounded, level-headed and particularly unassuming man. During a twenty year playing career, pretty much entirely played at the highest level, Speed won domestic honours, represented his country and was a consistent and highly professional performer for every team that he appeared in. Having prepared himself in advance for a transition into the coaching side of the game, his recent successes managing the Welsh national side, after a disappointing spell in charge of Sheffield United, seemed to suggest he had a bright future in the management side of the game. Unusually amongst the clique-ridden world of modern English football, Speed was a universally liked man, who had a particularly positive effect on the training ground, where he led by example, exhibiting extreme dedication to fitness and avoiding many of the temptations that crowd around football players later in their careers. Even people who had worked alongside Speed for years, the likes of Ryan Giggs, Alan Shearer, Howard Wilkinson and Craig Bellamy, could offer little insight into what might have prompted Speed to take his own life.
What Speed’s death has confronted both the general British public and the football establishment with is a painful, but simple, truth. We may think that we know someone, in particular as partners or close friends we might even assume that we have an understanding of the way they work or the way they operate, but in fact as individual’s we are all pretty much inscrutable islands upon which the most enigmatic and esoteric of thoughts and impulses run amok. Perhaps the only times that we are ever truly revealed is in our moments of action, which very often are all too fleeting and final. If Gary Speed had been suffering from a long-suppressed depressive condition, then that reflects poorly, to some degree, upon our incapacity to treat psychological illness with the seriousness and concern that it warrants. Whilst if it has been some much more sudden situation that has compelled Speed to take such drastic action, then, unless it is something akin to the hounding which rode Justin Fashanu to his grave, we can only wonder what drives another to take their own life. What may linger most in the memory of Speed’s passing is not necessarily the gifted and committed professional football player and coach that he was, but rather the certain and numbing knowledge his death confirms, that all our assumptions about the lives of others come nowhere near their elusive inner reality.